When it comes to those who have not yet visited Phoenix, one of our best-kept secrets is the prominence and longevity of the city's LGBTQ+ business community. For example, in 2020, the Greater Phoenix Equality Chamber of Commerce (GPECC) celebrated its 40th anniversary — making it among the oldest organizations of its kind in the United States.
Further, Phoenix has earned a score of 100 — the highest score possible — on the Human Rights Campaign's 2020 Municipal Equality Index Scorecard. Not just in 2020, but for eight consecutive years.
“[Our community is] amazing and diverse,” says Deanna Jordan, executive director of the GPECC. “I think Phoenix is more welcoming than outsiders expect, and we have amazing places and destinations ... [that] share a common goal: celebrating our diversity and empowering people to live an authentic life, personally or professionally."
Jordan credits Phoenix's business community – as well as local nonprofit and political organizations – for creating space for the city’s LGBTQ+ community to not only exist, but flourish. "Come and visit, Phoenix won’t disappoint you,” she adds.
In central Phoenix, there's a one-mile stretch of Seventh Avenue (between Indian School and Camelback roads) that's home to a higher concentration of LGBTQ+-owned businesses than anywhere else in the state. It passes through the historic Woodlea Melrose neighborhood, which dates back to the 1940s.
“I always refer to Melrose as the starting point for LGBTQ+ tourists,” says Tom Simplot, Phoenix City Councilman from 2003 to 2014. “There are funky shops, great restaurants and fantastic nightlife, all within walking distance from each other. I would compare Melrose to early Hillcrest in San Diego or Wilton Manors in Fort Lauderdale."
Simplot, a resident of Yaple Park, an adjacent historic district, called the area “ground zero” for his past campaigns and the focus of his work to highlight the neighborhood’s identity.
“During my tenure, I worked very closely with the Melrose Merchants Association, the LGBTQ+ community and the adjoining historic neighborhoods. We launched the Melrose Street Fair on 7th Avenue in 2004; the annual festival now draws thousands of attendees.”
Visitors approaching from the south (driving north past Indian School Road) can't miss the iconic “Melrose Arch,” which was key to defining the neighborhood’s eclectic character.
“The merchants and the neighbors all agreed that signage would foster a sense of community and would help market and brand the Melrose District,” Simplot says. “The pink squiggle in the sign represents the significance of the LGBTQ+ community.”
The prominence of the district is especially gratifying to Mike Fornelli, executive director of Phoenix Pride.
According to Fornelli, the diversity, openness and welcoming vibe of the Melrose District led to its selection as the site for one of Phoenix’s two rainbow crosswalks, at Seventh and Glenrosa avenues (the other is located at Central Avenue and Portland Street in downtown Phoenix).
The rainbow crosswalks, which were unveiled in July 2018, “serve a bright and lasting symbol of our LGBTQ+ presence in the city and our past, present and future contributions to the community as a whole.”
From a generational standpoint, this is an equal opportunity gayborhood too. Charlie’s, a country-themed nightclub, draws plenty of millennials to dance, while The Rock, a drag and cabaret room, has a loyal following of boomers. Boycott Bar is one of a shrinking number of the country's remaining lesbian-focused bars, and is Stacy’s @ Melrose is the neighborhood's version of Cheers — both are equally inviting to everyone, including allies.
“The role of the Melrose District is one of unification,” Fornelli says. “The level of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community … is a result of the vibrant, local economy and the neighborhoods and businesses working together to create an atmosphere of tolerance and a safe space for anyone who visits.”
Just over a decade ago, there was an unassuming home-turned-restaurant — Bliss/ReBAR — at the corner of Fourth and Garfield streets in downtown Phoenix. It's still there today, but nearly everything around it has changed. Since opening in 2010, Jackson Kelly has owned and operated the restaurant and bar, which is as known for its weekend brunches as it is its drag shows. Kelly's business plan has turned out to be the perfect addition to the Roosevelt Row Arts District, a downtown community he calls “all-accepting, all-encompassing."
Kelly says he’s witnessed a sea of change in the growth of Phoenix's LGBTQ+-owned businesses, which is in lockstep with the city's broader growth. Today, his restaurant is surrounded by hotels, new restaurants, high-rise condos and university buildings, with new neighbors coming on the scene regularly.
Bliss/ReBAR is part of a group of individually operated, gay-owned restaurants — unofficially called "The Collection" — which includes Fez Restaurant & Bar and Switch Restaurant & Wine Bar. Kelly attributes the success of these businesses to "a palpable shift" in the city's social and cultural climate, especially throughout central Phoenix," that's occurred over the course of the past decade or so.
“There’s a lot going on here and opportunities to be involved throughout the year,” he adds.